Back when I was still in school, I faced an issue that I think many people face. I was rolling along, getting decent grades, when all of a sudden I started struggling. Not in every class, not even in most, but there were one or two where I just couldn't seem to get my act together. I was going to class, I was doing the assignments, I was even studying!
It wasn't until later, looking back, that I was able to figure out the cause of my sudden academic struggles: I just wasn't working hard enough. I thought I was working hard, and I guess I was, but I definitely could have been doing more. Taking better notes, joining study groups, asking for extra credit assignments, there were things I could have done.
I see the same thing in the work I do now. People make positive changes but can't seem to get the results they want. This can be so discouraging, and it can lead to the person thinking that they're just meant to be a certain size, or that they'll never be able to run a certain distance, or that they just aren't very strong. It can even lead to them giving up, which is just the worst; in many cases the only thing they needed to do was to work harder!
With that in mind, let's take a look at the way you're working out to see if you're working as hard as you can be. As we go through the rest of this post, please keep in mind the importance of being honest with yourself. You're only cheating yourself if you aren't honest, and I can't hear your answers anyway.
A well balanced fitness regimen will contain elements of resistance, cardiovascular, and flexibility training. Depending on your goals, you may focus more on one aspect than another, but when we completely ignore one or two of those we are doing ourselves a disservice. Are you really including enough of each component? Your heart rate gets elevated when you lift weights, but is that really enough of a cardio workout? Yoga takes strength, but is the type of yoga you're doing challenging enough to be considered resistance training? We choose workouts we enjoy, and that's great, but it is often the things we avoid that we really need to do.
If honest introspection reveals that your exercise routines are incomplete, make a commitment to yourself that you'll be more balanced in your approach. This doesn't have to mean changing your entire program. It certainly doesn't mean running marathons, turning yourself into a pretzel, or doing Olympic-style lifting. Adding 10 minutes of stretching to your normal routine, spending some time on the exercise bike or doing some sprints, and picking 4-5 weight-training movements to do after your run are all simple ways to balance out your program. Talk to your trainer about any specific needs you have, and talk to your workout buddy to see if they have ideas of how your program could be more complete.
Alright, so now you have a well-balanced training program. The next thing to check is how hard you're working while you're doing the exercises. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself:
Even more simply, you can ask: Do you push yourself to be faster, to do one more rep? Do you spend more time resting than lifting? Are your weights heavy enough? Are you distracted by TV or a book while you work out, or are you fully present?
You can also check to see if your flexibility training is being done properly. If you're taking your time and holding each stretch for at least 30 seconds, making sure to hit all the muscles you worked on that day (or just all of your muscles), then you're doing it right. Anything less than that, and you have room for improvement.
Are you exercising often enough? This is not an easy question to answer. You'll want to consider your goals, your fitness level, and the type of exercise you're doing, so the advice that follows is very general. With strength training, your muscles need a day or two to recover from the stress you'be put them under, so aim for 2-3 sessions per week. Cardio/conditioning can be done 3-5 times per week, and flexibility training can either be added to the end of each workout or can be done on its own.
If you really want to work every day you can, just alternate between the types of work you're doing. If you are able to exercise 2-3 times per week, then make sure that your workouts are balanced and difficult enough as mentioned above. If you are only able to get to one session per week, you have to be really sure that you're making it count. You may also want to consider ways to increase your activity level on other days. This could be walking, cycling, swimming, playing a sport with friends, anything that gets you moving. This might not be the same type of work that we do in the gym/studio, but when the goal is to generally increase physical fitness, everything gets taken into account. Just don't fall into the trap of thinking, “well I went for a walk yesterday, I don't need to do my strength training today.”
We often overestimate our activity levels, which can lead to skipped workouts or bad decisions around food. Especially if your weeks aren't consistent, keep track of the amount of physical activity you've actually done in the past 7 days, rather than tricking yourself into feeling like you move around more than you really do.
If you want results, you've got to do the work. That's the bad news, I guess. The good news? If you really want results, all you have to do is do the work. There are plenty of things that are beyond our control, but the amount of effort we devote to being better at lifting weights, or running, or Grade 12 Chemistry? That's completely up to us.
Ryan Casselman is a personal trainer, musician, and the founder of Real Trainers. Stay tuned as he finds out what he's going to write about each week or so!